Carissa Gulyas took her young family to the US Virgin Islands over the holidays and came back with a lot of tips for people looking for a first hand testimonial.
As we all know, the Caribbean is a very popular destination for tourists, especially during the cold, winter months. And when it comes to the US Virgin Islands, Americans can easily go without a passport. But this year has been a little different. Just as the rest of the world shut down due to Covid, so did these small islands. Just when businesses were starting to get back to ‘normal’ after the two major, back to back, hurricanes in 2017, Covid shut everything down again and while many businesses are still struggling, the USVI still has a lot to offer. I wished to see what was happening there firsthand, so my family and I traveled to St. Thomas and St. John over the holidays. Here’s what we experienced and what the locals had to say.
Current Conditions on Island During the Pandemic & Post 2017 Hurricanes
From the moment we arrived at Cyril E. King Airport you could clearly notice the lack of tourists. Our flight was the only one that came in at that time and the military officers and staff were ready to make sure each passenger had what was required in order to enjoy their holiday – hopefully without quarantining. Currently, in order to visit the USVI by yacht, a negative PCR or rapid antigen test must be taken 5 days prior to arrival or from the last port and must be submitted to the marina your booked at and the captain must fill out the travel form on the travel portal. When coming in by plane, you are required to do the same and submit your results through the USVI travel portal prior to your arrival. Here’s a little tip, DO print out your confirmation forms from the travel portal, if possible, and bring them with you. This will be the deciding factor on heading towards a longer or shorter line to get processed. We cleared through everything in about two minutes and were on our way. Before getting to the exit, don’t forget to grab your free USVI PPE pack that they hand out as you walk by. The sanitizing wipes came in handy during the trip.
Besides the lack of tourists everywhere, which was kind of nice, everything seemed like business as usual. Red Hook in St. Thomas was very much alive and everyone was enjoying themselves in the restaurants and at the marina located there – American Yacht Harbor. Just like here on the mainland, the bar areas were blocked off and only table service was offered. There were plenty of places to choose from to eat, but reservations are definitely needed due to seating less people, otherwise if you can’t get in anywhere, just pick up a pizza from ITP (Island Time Pub). The wonderful thing about the islands is that everything is open air. Out of 21 times that we went out to eat, only 1 place was completely indoors. We were outside in the fresh air ALL THE TIME. Majority of places were very clean and whenever I thought it could be a little cleaner, I used my sanitizer wipes just to be sure. There’s sanitizer at the entrance of every store and restaurant we saw and everyone working was wearing a mask respectively. We definitely felt very safe during our visit. Some restaurants we tried that I would recommend would be Agave for unbelievably good Mexican food with a nice happy hour menu. It’s right in Red Hook, so you can dock at the marina and get something to eat. If you need something quick, Tap & Still is great. They had the juiciest burgers ever and I rarely eat beef, but these were worth it. A fancier restaurant that looked beautifully done inside but was completely booked out is The Easterly. Their menu looks great too. We ordered pizza for pick up at ITP one night and had lunch at well known Duffy’s Love Shack. The tacos are so good.
Everything we came across during our travels on island seemed to be open.
While several restaurants and hotels were able to come back and eventually open after Hurricane Irma and Maria, some were not. Some had to go out of business altogether, while others are still being worked on. The Ritz Carlton was closed for two years after the hurricanes, completely renovating and reinventing their hotel and are now open. I did a site tour during our visit and it’s beautiful. From what I saw, the hotels are doing a great job of letting others know about the necessity of masks in the public areas, as well as when you’re going to eat. Once seated or on the beach you no longer need to keep it on. If you would like to go back in time a bit and get a small feel for the hurricane damage, then go hiking. This is where you’ll see the remaining damage that hasn’t yet been cleared. While the majority has been cleared, you can definitely see several trees hunched over like blocks of pictures frozen from 2017 and it gives you a glimpse into what it was like for the islands after they hit.
Let’s talk about the beaches. They’re all beautiful, of course, and the water is warm and blue. Some beaches were busier than others, but there was still no problem finding a place to sit and relax. Even Magens Bay, one of the top beaches in the world, was practically empty when we went (1st pic). Secret Harbour is a smaller beach and one of my favorites, and was busier, but again, you’re outside and there’s plenty of space, even with the locals visiting since the beaches are public. From the beach, you have a beautiful view of the yachts hanging out not too far away. They were definitely having fun onboard with music and snorkeling at night. Coki Beach is another one I hear a lot about, but I have to tell you, it was my least favorite. It’s small, there were a lot of people and when we went, the water was rough, but I think it was from the winter winds they get at this time of year.
We took our jeep rental on the car barge, (which was packed, because locals go back and forth) and headed to St. John for the day. While parking in Cruz Bay was a little challenging, we didn’t have too much trouble finding a parking lot, given it was a holiday week - $5 for 1.5 hours. While there were people walking around, it wasn’t overwhelming. You could still go into a cute souvenir store and be the only person in there or have a short wait, if at all, to get a table at Woody’s Seafood or Scoops. Honeymoon Bay was empty when we arrived but started to get busier about an hour later. It’s a bigger beach, so you had plenty of room to space out. Maho Beach is less wide, so it looked a lot busier than some of the others. Nonetheless, take your pick, because it’s one beach after another. Even the boats were able to just pull up on the beach to pick up some of their friends without any worries about hitting swimmers. Everyone seemed to be wearing masks and practicing social distancing when standing in lines or walking around Cruz Bay. If you’re on a yacht it’s even better. You have your own built-in privacy, spaced out from everyone else. In my opinion, a charter is the best way to social distance, have amazing food and see the different islands, beaches and private cays without any crowds, just pretty fish. Let’s not forget about all the water toys on a charter too. Everything in Cruz Bay seemed to be open and operational, as well as the beach stands at each beach we passed and could check out. One beach I wish we made it to was Trunk Bay, but I guess we’ll have to go next time, but from a yacht charter, so we can visit the private, smaller cays.
What the Locals Had to Share from Sea and Land
My husband and I love talking to the locals. Everyone we spoke to was from somewhere else…either another island in the Caribbean or the States. I didn’t meet one person that was born and raised there, which was interesting. But since this trip was for a holiday and work, I wanted to get their perspective on how things were going on the island and what they recommend and here’s what had to say.
From the Yacht side of things, I spoke to Judi Nagelberg, who runs a business called, Island Meetings & Incentives. Judi told me how the islands are still recovering from the hurricanes and then Covid came and hurt the islands all over again. “Caneel Bay is still closed and no one knows when or if they’ll reopen, but they have a new restaurant, ZoZo’s, that just opened for lunch and dinner, but you can’t use the beach,” Judi says. Judi’s business helps corporate groups plan incentive events and high leveled meetings. Judi mentioned that the charter industry is doing well for long and shorter term charters. By boat, she recommends checking out The Lime Out, which is a floating taco boat in Coral Harbor, St. John, currently only accessible by boat. “There’s also a new, luxury resort that just opened, Lovango, which is on a private island off of St. John. They have a great restaurant you can stop and eat at,” Judi says and recommends heading over to Water Island, where there are some great beach bars. I think Lovango would be a great location for a destination wedding or corporate incentive group.
From land, I spoke to Mickey Lapan and Neil Lewia, who facilitate the watersports at Bolongo Bay in St. Thomas and who are incredibly awesome people, both are from the States. Mickey recommended checking out Coki Beach for some great snorkeling. “You want to head to the far left rock to see some beautiful fish. Also check out the Coki Beach Shack, it’s a good local scene. The other ‘definitely do’ is to try the Magens Bay hiking trail through the jungle and there’s a lot of rope to hold onto and you come out to sand and bright blue water and beautiful beach,” Mickey says. My family and I took Mickey’s advice and hike one of the trails. It was a little muddy when we went, but you’re definitely in the jungle!
Neil, told us that you should not walk around the island! “You’ll get hit. Don’t run here, don’t walk here. There’s no shoulders, no curbs, no sidewalks, you’re walking along these streets with blind corners that people come flying around.” Neil also told us to go to Red Hook. Nice bars and restaurants like the Kinky Mermaid. Also, check out the marina in Red Hook, which has some charter boats. “I’d also go to Sapphire Beach. That’s one of the best beaches on the island. It has a beach bar and restaurant, jet skis and everything you would need or want,” he said. Neil also told me that the islands have really picked up in the last two weeks, which is great for businesses.
If you’re hesitant to fly commercially and stay at a resort, then may I recommend flying privately, if possible, and chartering a yacht, which all vary in size. Have your own crew and chef and still be able to get that perfect vacation you want. Visit different beaches and cays or just hang out on the boat. It’s not like you’ll be bored with paddle boards, kayaks, jet skis, trampolines, slides, scuba and snorkel gear and more.
From my family to yours, Happy New Year and cheers to a better one ahead!